artist unknown, Korean

Last summer, I read Wayne Koestenbaum’s Notes on Glaze, mostly in short bursts, poolside, while my son splashed and wrinkled in the over-chlorinated water.

Beyond the photographs and their accompanying short essays, what has remained with me is the inquiry. Koestenbaum was sent photographs, without any identifying or contextual information, and asked to write extended captions on them for on ongoing column at Cabinet Magazine. In the introduction to the book that was later composed of these text and image pairings, he says:

The column began with cheekiness, but quickly accommodated itself to more serious violations, even if I treated trauma whimsically. Language, when worked, is a wounding business, and these columns gave me a chance to measure the wound of being wrongly seen, the wound of assembling a self, and the wound of any form of duress, whether mild or mortifying.

Later that year, I heard Teju Cole discuss his desire, in Blind Spot, his photograph and text collection, to bring objects together in visual space – objects that have “an organic but unacknowledged relationship to each other.”

What struck me in these comments about both projects was the importance of the space between – the as yet inarticulate silence between the photographs Koestenbaum was given and the text that might be brought into space with them, the about-to-be-identified linkages between Cole’s objects. The attempt to make meaning from and in those gaps.

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Upon request, I was generously given a list of the hundreds of items labeled “Korean” in the RISD Museum’s East Asian Art collection. (As an aside, the document was charmingly titled “Korean for Mary-Kim.”) Most of the objects, the earliest of which is identified as “3rd century CE,” are credited: “Artist unknown, Korean.” This anonymity persists until, of course, the 20th century. Scrolling through the 86-page document, photograph after photograph, object after object, the phrase “Artist unknown, Korean,” asserts itself becomes a kind of poetic refrain, anaphora:

Artist unknown, Korean
Spoon, 3rd century CE
bronze
length: 21 cm (8 1/4 inches)
Gift of Mrs. William C. Baker  12.163

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s-600s
bronze
Diameter: 17.8 cm (7 inches)
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke  15.017

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s - 600s
bronze
22.2 cm (8 13/16 inches) (diameter)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.304

Artist unknown, Korean
Ornament,
bronze; gilding
3.8 cm (1 1/2 inches) (height)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.373A

 … and so on.

In an exhibition catalog from the Seattle Art Museum in 1992, I first encountered this preamble in the relatively brief discussion of Korean lacquer art:

In Korea, all arts have suffered badly from centuries of invasion and warfare. Perishable arts, including lacquer, are almost nonexistent for many periods. Most extant lacquers have been excavated from tombs or other archaeological sites and have been damaged during burial. In addition, most pieces from the period between the eleventh century and the Japanese invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late sixteenth century are in Japan, removed from their cultural context….

How to address incomplete or unknowable provenance? One approach is perhaps through imaginative response. A series of texts around missing objects, gaps, the ruptures in the collection. An attempt to explain those absences, to raise questions around the “centuries of invasion” referred to above.

In a recent interview, Regine Basha of Pioneer Works observed that “decentralizing the art object and emphasizing the process over the product is one way to stimulate more critical engagement and debate,” and I am thinking about how this might be applicable, through multiple points of view, or interweaving multiple, even conflicting interpretations or sources.